Zootown Arts Community Center eager for move to new downtown facility

Children explore the wonders of making clay cups in midday pottery class at the Zootown Arts Community Center. The nonprofit plans to move into downtown Missoula next year, where it will offer more programs in a larger facility. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

After 10 years at its current location, the Zootown Arts Community Center is bursting at the seams. But it’s also dreaming big, with plans to move across the railroad tracks to start a new chapter in downtown Missoula.

For executive director Kia Liszak, the move can’t come soon enough (watch accompanying video).

“In the last five or six years, we’ve grown exponentially,” Liszak said. “We’re constantly seeing traffic, and constantly managing an overflow. We don’t have the space we need to do multiple things at once.”

Specially challenged as it is, ZACC conducted a feasibility study and surveyed residents before concluding that the time had come to begin searching for a permanent home.

It found that home in the Studebaker Building, a two-story structure on Front Street. At 17,000 square feet, the downtown building will essentially double the 8,500-square-foot facility ZACC has occupied on Missoula’s vintage Northside since its founding a decade ago.

The organization has raised $2.26 million to date, more than half of its $4.2 million goal.

“It makes us more accessible in terms of the community finding us and getting to us,” Liszak said of the new location. “That was one of the things we heard, that we need to be in a more centralized location. It’s been great serving this (Northside) neighborhood, but in some ways, we’re isolated over here. Going downtown is kind of an equalizer.”

A rendering of the newly remodeled Zootown Arts Community Center. (Image by Paradigm V2 Architects)

With its steady growth, ZACC plays host to 1,000 people a month, from burgeoning musicians to painters, potters and printers. Its summer art camps and after-school classes continue to grow, and its field trips and adult courses are well attended.

Art has the power to effect change, Liszak believes, and she’s looking to bring that change to the middle of downtown Missoula.

“We like to think about programs where people can come in and immediately engage, and remove the barriers people have in thinking of themselves as non-creative people,” she said. “We believe everyone is inherently an artist. We want to be that place of self discovery.”

While ZACC has followed that same mission since its founding as a nonprofit, its growing programs have placed a pinch on its North First Street facility, perched as it is along the fringes of Montana Rail Link’s diesel refueling station.

On this day, a line of coal cars sat in rail yard, all but severing any view of downtown Missoula, which sits achingly close but yet so far away.

That lack of accessibility has troubled Liszak for years. It’s also kept ZACC somewhat hidden, leaving its do-it-yourself offerings something of a mystery to the larger community.

“I like to see ZACC as the central bridge between art and community in Missoula,” Liszak said. “One of the main focuses of all our programs is making art accessible. We work really hard to create a welcoming environment for all people, making all our programs affordable and accessible.”

Under its current timeline, ZACC will begin interior construction at the Studebaker Building in March. The facility has served as an office for years and is currently home to Advanced Technology Group, a tech company that’s moving to the Old Sawmill District next month.

Liszak has high hopes for the downtown location and her organization’s new potential.

“After a year-long search looking at multiple different buildings in town, we landed on the Studebaker Building,” she said. “We were able to purchase it earlier this year, with early acquisition donations. We’ve launched our campaign and are trying to raise the $4.2 million it’s going to take to create the new ZACC.”

“I’ve been working on the project for three years and it’s super exciting to see how the whole community is coming together to make this work,” added Melanie Brock, a member of the capital campaign. “Every person we touch has asked how they can help. It’s really a community project.”

A rendering a new proposed use for the ally behind the new Zootown Arts Community Center. (Image by Paradigm V2 Architects)

When it opens next September, the new ZACC will provide more space for creative endeavors. Among them, it will include a “black box” theater with room for 160 people. More art studios, a recording booth, classrooms and a larger art gallery are also in the plans.

Through its campaign, ZACC has gained an impressive list of supporters, including Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, who has naming rights to the recording studio. It also includes lead donors Nick and Robin Checota, owners of the Top Hat, Wilma and Kettlehouse Amphitheater.

“We have dreams of bringing in more visiting artists that are performing at the Wilma and at the amphitheater to come and do community workshops,” Liszak said. “We have a lot of dreams and we’re really creative here, and we’re constantly adding programs. This will simply add more capacity.”

During its time on the Northside, ZACC has led the neighborhood in something of a revival, the buildings now quaintly painted and occupied. By moving downtown, the western stretch of Main Street could see a revival of its own.

“We love thinking of ourselves as doing the same thing downtown,” said Liszak. “I see us as a gateway. We really believe in the power of the arts as a vehicle to make changes in the world.”